Here's the thing they don't tell you about polygamy: it's murder on your cell bill. Early in Big Love (HBO, Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) checks his calls. He has 16 messages. He's got three wives, three mortgages and seven kids. His father (Bruce Dern) suspects Bill's mother of poisoning him. Bill is opening a new branch of his Salt Lake City, Utah, hardware store, and his shady, polygamist-patriarch father-in-law Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) is demanding a cut. Then there's the matter of, er, keeping up with three wives. Pharmaceutical assistance is involved.
Like Bill, Big Love has a lot going on: it's about relationships and criminality, faith and secrets, piety and lust, all within an extended--really extended--family. As The Sopranos and Six Feet Under did, it introduces us to a world that is both bizarre and mundane. But while Big Love can be funny, it doesn't go for Desperate Housewives camp or titillation. "When we pitched the show," says Mark V. Olsen, the co-creator with Will Scheffer, "it was with the caveat that we had no interest in milking the sensational or tawdry or salacious."
They also didn't want to write an advertisement for polygamy, which in real life has been associated with child abuse. (Although practiced by early Mormons, polygamy is banned by the church, the show notes in a disclaimer.) Bill was abandoned by his polygamist family as a boy, only to return to his religious roots in midlife. "He's on a spiritual quest," says Paxton. "His core belief is that we're put on this earth to procreate. He's a healthy apple tree, and it's his job to produce healthy apples."
His wives are no harem girls, however, and the series turns on their complex dynamics and strong performances. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is the strong-willed first wife. Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), Roman's daughter, chafes at being No. 2 to "boss lady" Barb and nurses a shopping addiction. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the young, insecure baby of the trio. The patriarchal setup will unsettle some viewers, as it did the actresses. "It felt like we were shooting a period piece," says Tripplehorn, "like something out of the '50s." Yet each woman has thought-out reasons why polygamy works for her, and their partnership combines traditional religion with countercultural idealism about plural marriage. The wives are, literally, married to one another--"not in a sexual way, which will disappoint a lot of our male viewers," says Goodwin.
If you're waiting for a wink or satirical nudge, it's not coming. Surprisingly for HBO, which has never exactly courted family-values conservatives, Big Love, for all its R-rated content, takes its deeply religious characters on their own terms. Olsen and Scheffer, both coastal gay men--"We're not red state, Mark and I," Scheffer deadpans--have invested their milieu with a sense of place and unsarcastic wholesomeness. "So much of this country has become subsumed by mass culture," says Olsen. "There's still something uniquely Utah, uniquely other that I admire. Would I want to live there? God, no! But do I find it exciting and fascinating? Absolutely."